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Dhammayietra

Dhammayietra

MORE than twenty years after Khmer Rouge radicals banned religion and forced monks

from their serene pagoda on the hills of Pailin, 230 Buddhist peace marchers emerged

from the forest and entered the former rebel base.

After failing to reach Pailin in 1994 because of fighting, the Dhammayietra peace

walk, the sixth led by the venerable Buddhist monk Maha Ghosananda - finally crossed

old front lines into the former Khmer Rouge zone, of the north west.

Saffron-clad monks, white-robed nuns and a handful of foreign peace activists, who

had threaded their way from Battambang through heavily mined bamboo forests, arrived

in Pailin Mar 25, and were warmly welcomed.

In Pailin alone, hundreds of former rebel fighters and their families, decked out

in their best and brightest, hovered uncertainly along roads to welcome the march,

offering gifts of food, candles and money to the weary walkers.

Waiting to be sprinkled with water and blessed by Ghosananda and the Dhammayietra

monks, Pailin locals said they were ready for peace and Buddhism.

"We are very happy to see the Maha Ghosananda and the Dhammayietra here because

it means the war is really finished and we can settle down to a better life,"

said Chai Ly, 44, who owns a bamboo shop 10km north of Pailin.

"In the past we had to move often to the forest to avoid shelling, now the development

is starting we are building houses, roads and gardens," Ly said.

Former Khmer Rouge Foreign Minister Ieng Sary, whose radical 1975-79 government is

believed to have eliminated thousands of Buddhist monks, welcomed Ghosa-nanda and

his followers into Pailin.

The meeting between the Nobel peace prize nominee and the now pardoned but still

notorious rebel leader was brief. Ghosananda sprinkled water from a plastic bottle

on a respectful Sary but paid him no special attention.

Both leaders then made their way into Pailin's Wat Kong Kang, which is perched on

a hill on the outskirts of town, for a short prayer session.

On the following day at least 1,000 Pailin residents gathered along roads for a personal

blessing from Maha Ghosananda, who completed a 45-minute circuit of the town, leaving

many people still bowing in his wake.

"We have only 90 percent peace now...the other 10 percent is the remaining hardline

Khmer Rouge, land mines and unresolved differences between people," Maha Ghosananda

told reporters, the latter an apparent reference to political conflicts dogging the

coalition government.

Pailin officials, who had spread the word of the walk's arrival, bustled along ahead

of Maha Ghosananda, advising locals how to behave but a tiny minority stared from

the shadows of their houses and did not join in.

An official Pailin welcoming ceremony for the Dhammayietra which followed fell short

of expectations, when Ieng Sary and Pailin Governor Ee Chhean, failed to attend,

pleading personal and family illnesses.

Once underway, the ceremony was punctuated by the sound of mines being detonated

on the road into Pailin, but in a rare occurrence, 24 hour a day grinding gem mining

equipment was silenced.

Plans to release birds of peace at the ceremony were canceled as officials said they

had been unable to catch and bring in the birds from either Battambang or Thailand.

Sary, who held a press conference near the welcoming ceremony immediately afterward

Ghosananda left, said, the arrival of the venerated monk into his zone would re-inforce

Cambodia's peace process.

"When we welcome the Dhammayietra we are reinforcing the peace process, which

has already begun, by educating the people that Cambodia will not survive as a nation

[unless there is peace]," Sary said.

Sary, reiterated his claim that as a key figure in the Khmer Rouge regime, he had

been powerless and that he was not responsible for the rebel's excesses.

"I did not show outwardly that I was a Buddhist but in my heart I remained a

Buddhist secretly," Ieng Sary told reporters, adding that he had left a Buddhist

pagoda as a teenager, disillusioned with religion.

"I have no guilt in my mind...I did not give the order to stop religion and

destroy the pagodas," he said.

Locals, who traveled from surrounding villages to greet the peace walk, said they

were grateful that after almost 20 years without monks and religion in Pailin, Buddhism

was making a come back.

"Pol Pot didn't like the monks," said Choun Heng, a 64-year-old Pailin

grandmother, recalling the execution and removal of monks from pagodas around the

country during Pol Pot's extremist regime.

"I am very happy for my grandchildren to see this walk. I think in the future

many people here will practice [Buddhism],"Heng said.

Former rebel military commanders in Pailin said around two dozen monks had infiltrated

the bamboo curtain and settled in Pailin in 1991, only to be disrobed and forced

out of the zone, under new orders from Son Sen in 1995.

Monks and religion have been tolerated in Pailin and the neighboring breakaway rebel

zones, since guerrillas loyal to Sary broke with Pol Pot in August 1996, officials

said.

Surprise guest at the Pailin proceedings was Sam Rainsy, who appeared unannounced

Mar 26, to walk around 15km of the Dhammayietra accompanied by a fleet of bodyguards.

Rainsy who met with aide to Ieng Sary, Long Narin, and the deputy military commander,

Seng Narin, said he had joined the march, in Pailin, for "symbolic peace"

reasons.

"I reminded them I have always been an advocate of peace and that I was one

of the only MPs who opposed the bill outlawing the Khmer Rouge in 1994," Rainsy

said, after the meeting.

Rainsy chided Cambodia's two Prime Ministers for not attending the walk, saying "it

would have been meaningful if all political parties had joined with Cambodian people

on this march, but they [Hun Sen and Ranariddh] don't care," he added.

Emotional welcomes for the march and what it represented seemed to get stronger,

the further the Dhammayietra pushed north.

In the former battle site village of Sala Krao, lines of school children gathered

along the dusty road as streams of villagers poured in to welcome the walk.

News that the Dhammayietra was coming, spread fast into Front 250 territory north

of Pailin and up into Phnom Malai, 130km north of Pailin where the march was due

to have arrived at press time.

The march will then continue to move steadily north of Malai, and is due to arrive

at Banteay Chmar temple in northern Banteay Meanchey Apr 13.

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